Chattanooga

Long Short Story by Loren Niemi

Chattanooga

Now & Then

The Tennessee hills are tattered green curtains longing for the first frost to replace the well-worn testament of summer with a golden raiment. Even the aggressive Kudzu crowding the edge of the highway seems tired of reaching, always reaching for tomorrow. We've been on the road for a long time now and the tiredness we carry has settled inside. Like so many cherished postcards of the places we've been, we take it out, put it next to this longing to be done with the incessant heat. I'm nodding off as the last dregs of the coffee buzz falters. I'm nodding off at the wheel of a nondescript Pontiac Transport loaded with sideshow props and canvas, heading towards Atlanta. It'll be a valiant attempt, or a vain one, to refocus my drifting attention to the road and not the flickering yellow line that comes along every two seconds.

Crank up the tape deck. Something loud and jarring, that's the ticket. Shove Lou Reed's New York in and let it rattle this rented plastic and glass can in hopes of keeping me awake for just one more hour.

You can't depend on your family, You can't depend on your friends,

You can't depend on a beginning, You can't depend on an end...

Another sixty miles is all I ask. In another sixty miles, I'll feel like we've made some progress and will let one of them other guys take the wheel.

The floor, from front to back, is littered with orange peels, newspapers from three long gone towns, candy bar wrappers and Polaroids of the journey. The newspapers are left opened to the crossword puzzle which Marcel is always working in ink, surely an act of desperation or faith.

You can't depend on no miracle, You can't depend on the air,

You can't depend on a wise man, You can't find them because they're not there...

A map stretched across the dashboard marks the route we should be taking, but we abandoned it in favor of a tour of the Jack Daniel's distillery and that was the end of should be; the last bastion of any hope of sure and swift arrival today.

You can depend on the worst always happening, You need a busload of faith to get by.

Them other guys, Marcel and Elijah, my faithful companions, performing partners, my compadres on stage and on the road are snoring the rumpled rest of the wicked after a long night of drinking and lies. Turning in their sleep, they try to find the right position to go deeper into the sublime dream time that marks our true beginnings. The ontology of two-lane highways traversed between the forever and always we share. How many times have we started to consciousness, to shake our heads and ask what lost and desolate highway are we hurtling down on fumes and a three-night coffee jag?

Are we there yet? No, boys, not yet. How long have we been on this road? An hour, a week, the length of time it takes a frog to leap half the distance to the end of the log and half the distance again? Days pass, nights follow and do we ever arrive? The miles rushing toward the windshield and flying away in the rearview mirror have been a constant for so long now that this dream is the highway, this highway is the dream, once and always familiar. This town and the next, the one we left, the one we have yet to arrive at.

Sometimes, through the shimmering haze of fitful memory we dream the beginning, sliding back to the days when we played Wal-Mart parking lots under an Arkansas sun, as warm as butter in a frying pan. In those recurring bad dreams, we are once again and always at our birth, standing at the edge of the shimmering black asphalt, singing some Tin Pan Alley ditty held together with chewing gum and confusion.

Hustle and jive, shake, rattle and roll. Hey, step on over here, have I got a deal for you. Whoa, you don't want to get too close, sweetheart, you won't be able to appreciate the fine line, the good looks of this quality merchandise. In fact, it looks so much better in the dark, why not come back tonight? Come back, and I'll make you a special offer, make you glad you came.

We peddled whatever could be bought cheap and sold dear, just like our fathers taught us. In those days our dreams of entrepreneurial bliss were measured by boxes of used shirts, eight track tapes, bottled holy water (strictly for medicinal purposes), come hither lucky money charms, mojos, soap–

Friends, do you raise your arm and lose your charm?
Well then, I have the famous soap on a rope,
the clean machine that will keep your mother proud if you're in a crowd. Don't worry, there's no hurry, you'll be happy to know this is priced so low even the poorest boy can afford to be on the better side of pride,
can revel in the wealth of health.
Grease, grime, grit all wash away.
Yes, Yes, costs only a dollar, it won't make you holler.
If the bill's too big,
we can easily rearrange the faces.

In the beginning we simply shilled for an audience, then we shilled the audience. Didn't matter much what the song and dance was, we loved the permission of playing in public. Easier to ask forgiveness than permission, Elijah would say. Just set up in the corner of strip-mall parking lot, a vacant field all red dirt and weeds, at the side of any bum bait alley and burn. Hell, I don't think we knew how good we had it. We were just having some fun. I could see how slick it was clear to tomorrow.

Brother Elijah, his mustard-colored porkpie hat pushed back on his head and his pointed sideburns making his already long face look like a snorting race horse, keeping 5/4 time with a shuffle beat on a snare drum. Long of frame, loose of joint, he seems a dandy of a scarecrow just out of the cornfield with a brown check jacket and blue peg leg pants. With his sly eye winking in the noonday blaze, Elijah slaps out time, smokes a cigarette and smiles a big toothy grin, all at once.

Beside him, skinny little Marcel, poor Spirit, pale as a ghost, shaking with a case of the morning-after D.T.'s sitting on a camp stool, face buried into a baritone horn as big as he is, searching for a melody. His eyes roll back in his head. Every labored breath sounds like it might be his last and that frail physique shudders with every note. His helpless look, the shaggy scruff of hair that needs combing, worked wonders with the women who were long on sympathy and short on sense. Every one of them proper church going women wanted to take care of that boy, bring him home, tuck him in bed and hold him close to their maternal bosom with one hand, while feeding him a big spoonful of something nourishing with the other. Though it seems there is nothing to this boy, no matter how much he is fed by those women with a charitable bent, the fact is he is as healthy as a horse and can eat, drink and dance most of the world under the table. Listen close, though he has the look of a flyweight lugging a heavy horn, he's honking the big bass notes like an entire brass section.

Me, I've got my genuine Raybans on, same as always, my coat off and my sleeves rolled up ready to do the dirty work. I'm tap dancing, shouting, whooping it up trying to bring them suspicious shoppers close enough to make the pitch before the cops come by to chase us away. Just making a few quick bucks. Mostly Washingtons and Lincolns. Selling enough for gas to get us to the next town. On a good day, Jacksons would appear and we'd spend a few hours parked on a stool in some dark hole of redneck hell, sucking back cold ones, eating stale peanuts and looking at jars of pickled eggs old enough to vote in Vermont.

Was it real or imagined, fact or fiction? I give myself permission to sing. Let me begin with the slippery facts of memory and call forth all manner of silver winged angels or rum-soaked demons named in some arcane and ancient tome. Come ex-wives and girlfriends, both legion and well loved. Come you twelve apostles of the traveling Circus, come you stout-hearted men who packed and unpacked the tents, set the ring, sold the tickets, played in the band. Come you luckless ones, the shadows of our worst fears, the Peanut Man or Tommy the Wino, half dead and looking for the next nickel. Come freckle-faced boys and gap-toothed girls. Come dogs and cats, whatever walks on two legs, four legs, or crawls on its belly. Come all you winged ones soaring between storm cloud and firmament and whatever swims in the muddy waters of the deep. Come one, come all, to keep me company between the highway song and sleep.

Begin with the beginning? No such luck. My visitations have always tumbled one upon another, out of sequence or time, a tangle of this or that. Memphis B-B-Q. Natchez ghosts. New York, so nice they named it twice. The proverbial fickle finger of uncertainty tracing a bony path across the map of what was and might have been. San Francisco. Rainy, rainy Seattle and Portland with the wet roses growing fulsome. Hog butcher to the world, Chicago. Meet me in St, Louis. Don't forget Winona, Winslow, Arizona. We'll get our kicks on Route 66. Begin not at the beginning but with the bountiful fact of imagination. Let us sneak past the bored angel lighting a good cigar off the flaming sword to once again stand in the Garden of Eden picking the forbidden fruit. Bitter or sweet, I'll bite. Let the juices run down my chin. Do not fear, we have already paid the price of our expulsion. You may enter Paradise or not. Taste or not. Believe or not. Imagine or not.

If I give myself permission, I give you permission as well. Let us confess. Let us testify. Let us shake the walls with our shouts, rent the still night with our fearful cries. Let us taste the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge and give voice to the all too familiar. I will speak the truth, Yes, I will. Not the facts, but the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, and plenty more.

We live until we die.

This is how our oft told story goes: Three men met in a blind alley off a dead-end street. They recognized each other by their Salvation Army suits, white shirts flecked with bar-b-cue sauce stains that no amount of washing could remove. They were the kind of men you find smoking unfiltered butts and muttering the names of every hurt to themselves. We knew the type, saw them every day when we looked in the mirror. The straw hatted carny barkers and cigar smoking back-door impresarios. The wild-eyed innocents with tongues aflame, who are touched by angels and are not sore afraid. The guys who preach salvation from the peach-crate pulpits. Pilgrims cast out of a two-bit Paradise, to earn our keep by the sweat of our brow. We were workers of broken words, picking through the all-American clichés, toiling in the vineyards of the vernacular, in search of that intoxication which cannot be shaken off, in search of the one fabled incantation of miracles and wonder which cannot be spoken aloud.

Too late for these prodigal sons to feast at the father's forgiving table, we inhabited the waysides and empty rooms of cheap motels and all-night greasy spoons. Met, spit and shook on it, then went down the narrow lanes, the side roads, in common cause of getting wherever there was. Hoisted our horns and hit the high notes. Played to the best of our ability. Three men deep in the funk of street jive, basement jazz, we did every set at every club that would have us, picked up the check, cashed it on the spot. Wandering mendicants, we have spent two decades as refugees wearing second-hand shoes and still dance with happy feet. Men who long ago burned their bridges and did not look back.

Our World

After all the years of our working together the principle we use is the very same one we began with: Everything is fair game. Nothing's sacred. In the early days, the work was totally improvisational. We'd pull into town, drive around scouting out likely locations, usually a vacant lot next to a heavily trafficked roadway or the far edge of a Wal-Mart parking lot. We'd park the car, open the trunk, pull out the snare drum and cymbal, pull out Spirit Marcel's horn, pull out a camp stool for the boy to sit on and have at it.

As I have often said, we began by pitching a grab bag of Tin Pan Alley tunes we knew as background to announce the time and place of the next performance or the for sale right there and then. Months of this and that to pay our way became years of that and this to stay in business. We mutated faster than a virus, turning our hand to what would let us hang tight and put a buck in our pocket. Then we would have a fight over nothing more than who snored or less than the principle of the pratfall and breakup. A week later or maybe a month we would burning the telephone lines asking for a little cooperation with the next great proposition.

Later we turned to making "shows," two-parts music and one-part cheap theatrics. Oh, that was the turning point, and the beginning of our real work. Many a heartfelt thank you to good old Johnny Klick Klacky for pointing out that there was some real money to be had in making "art" because those same jumbled roots of doing whatever came to mind when we were scuffling to make a buck bore the sweetest fruit when it was put on stage. Blossom, he said, and taste the bounty. Everything got thrown on the table Slice, dice, whirl and blend and what tottered up to the microphone to prattle its little tale was what no one objected to.

The shows have always been a race between anarchy and some preoccupation that vexed one or more of us, a mix of our obsessions and some loopy half-baked conceit about philosophical or theological nits which had caught our attention but might not even be manifest to the audience. Sometimes I declare, our themes were so stealthy, they were not even visible to us, until after we'd done the show enough times to feel the presence of whatever lurked behind the curtain and refused to come out. Yes, so what if these shows were three blind men and an elephant? We "weren't afeared of nothing, except not giving a dollar's worth of sweat for a buck."

How do we actually make the work? Toss every idea against the wall and see what sticks. Shuffle and reshuffle the pieces of whatever we want to do, play them out until each has a shape and a feel and all the time, talk, talk, talk, about every goddamned thing that comes into our heads. With them other fellows, every time we talk the show through, we're adding, subtracting, adjusting until we're free from anything that might be called shame or blame. We'll let the most elegant and intricate work we've ever made go down in flames if we think we can get ten minutes of sweat flying funk and a halfway decent joke in its place.

Our work is always about our world. Measure the cloth by the seat of your pants the blind tailor used to say and the pants fit right. Everything that is the stuff of everyday life. Reach in the ice bucket and bring me beer, we got some talking to do. From the come-on lines you hear from used car salesmen to the songs you make up while driving to the second shift, from the bad jokes the guys tell after their next-to-last beer to the stuff that looks like we stole it straight out of your five-year-old nephew's talent show. Catfish, bar-b-que, lots of cold beer. The mighty Mississippi River. Love, fights, working for a buck. The only difference between what you do in ordinary life and what we do on stage is that in ordinary life, you wouldn't expect to get paid to say this shit in front of strangers.

Our common bond is the geography of men who live by talking–the carnival pitchmen, street peddlers, revival preachers, barroom storytellers, the "innocent" ones who have heard angel voices and answer the siren's call we have known. The stuff that interests me, the stuff that interests them other fellows, is about the dignity of the guys we meet in the soup lines, their hacking fears, their cigar band obsessions, their little tales of triumph in a world gone wrong. It's about the Peanut Man and Tommy the Wino's of the world, post-graduates of a discredited school of thought trying to pass themselves off as ordinary folks, the store clerks run amok, the zealots proselytizing some unorthodox and unexpected gospel to any who will listen.

What always amazes me, and pisses me off, is that the people who pay for this testimony think we're goofing off, that this is some kind of hipster joke. Hell no, this is the Gospel Truth as told by three men who been there, done that, and come back to bear witness to the power and glory of our sweat-stained world. This is the confession of the people you do not want to see, the land you lock your doors for as you drive through.

Take a look at even the simplest of our pieces. Something like “Cadillac Blues.”

The song is set up like a classic hot rod, chopped and channeled on the frame of the basic tango tempo with a big bore V-8's worth of walking talking Chicago Blues progressions strutting across the top. Looks like shit till you start her up. Get in the groove and that baby can run till Sunday and still not be tuckered out.

Purchased the source bits and pieces of the lyric for a bump and a beer in a Cicero Avenue bar from the testimony of one, George "Three Fingers" Mahoney. George was going on to everyone and anyone within spitting range of his barstool about how the unluckiest day of his life was when he come to inherit a classic big fin Cadillac. Should have been his gold mine of happiness but due to some marital troubles he had encountered with the former Mrs. Mahoney–the late, lamented, and very dairy wife, as he called her in better days–he would be having to sell the cream puff on wheels to pay for the lawyer in his upcoming murder trial.

I'm sitting a couple of stools down with a Jack Daniels in hand and half a mind to buy the car on the spot when I recognize this is aged-prime storytelling. Throw down a Lincoln for another round and tell the man that I'm going to do him a favor and tell his sorry story of trouble and woe to anyone who will listen. Old Three Fingers puts down his drink, looks at me cross-eyed to see if I'm shoveling it or actually give a fuck. He decides I'm on the square, and shakes my hand like I just pronounced him innocent of the demise of the said same Mrs. Mahoney as he tells me what a fine favor I'm doing for him. Then he gets into thinking this is the deep garden of night and makes me his priest. Tells me everything and I absolve him of the memory.

Lucky for me and unlucky for him the jury was not as sympathetic. He's in Jolliet doing twenty to life and I'm on still going on stage, with a mic in one hand and a bottle of cough syrup in the other, ready to rant and rave the pieces of his puzzle to those with ears to hear.

Marcel picks up the big horn and settles into a comfortable slouch. He takes a swig of beer and looks across the drum kit. Elijah cracks a rim shot for the count. One, and a two, and a three....

When my grandfather died all that was left to me, as a final departing gesture of good will,
as a fearful and frugal patrimony,
was a '59 Cadillac Coupe De Ville.

Here we go.....

Black as night and long as day,
Bright rocket red taillights going, going away, Black as night and long as day,
Bright rocket red taillights going, going away, 8 miles to the gallon or 8 gallons to the mile, Who cares? We’re going in style.

Chrome in front and chrome in back.
Seats so wide you need a map to find the door Chrome in front and chrome in back.
They just don't make them like that anymore. Oh, Baby, this isn't a ride, it's a lifestyle

Car like that commands respect
So there's just one little thing I got to ask of you, Drive it fast or drive it slow,
I said, there's just one thing I got to ask of you,

Please, please, Baby, please don't open the trunk

At this juncture there's a time shift as Elijah propels the whole thing into a build hung on a double-time bass line. On those gigs where our pal Todd is playing guitar, he commences to running some sinister lines of distortion up and down the melody like the fingers of a happy masseuse on a tight muscle back.

She liked the candle and she liked the flame,
She liked the thrill and she liked the pain.
Out would come the powder and out would come the spoon, Out would come the needle and out would come the swoon, Shoot the junkie, shoot the moon
Shoot the horse, shoot the rain,
Oh, Baby, let me take aim,
Hold me, whisper my name
Hold me, hold me close when I got the shakes

Another time-shift and a pause. The end is in sight once we shove the whole mess in overdrive; Marcel popping out big blue blats of sound like some crazed fart machine. The guitars are all burning and churning one screaming note after another like a sick dog's howl. Drumbeats racing and me clutching the microphone stand like a drowning man with one hand, eyes closed, down on my knees, swigging a bottle of cough syrup while the rhythm builds. Then beginning with a whisper and ending up I'm screaming out those fateful words that got old Three Fingers convicted.

Your head on the pillow, the blood on the wall Your head on the pillow, the blood on the wall Your head on the pillow, the blood on the wall

Elijah cracks out a rim shot at the end of each line. It's all build, build and a sudden halt. The silence is as fierce as a lightning bolt, vibrating in the smoky room, the sudden emptiness filled with little gasps as the audience catches their breath. I deliver the last lines in deliberate whisper:

Hand me my shotgun Hand me my end, I've used it once
I'll use it again...

Chattanooga

In spite of our best intentions, twilight came creeping out of the mountain valleys, claiming ever larger swathes of hillside and highway. It subverted the balance of sunlight and shadow, demanding a redistribution of resources. The blue sky grows tired of holding its color, the clouds blush, everything is just plain embarrassed at how little there is to show for this day's labors and decides to knock off. I figured as much.

We had started in Nashville with the very best of intentions. Head 'em up, roll 'em out! But remembering every mother's admonition that a good breakfast is the key to the day, we stopped before we ever got going. Found a place on the edge of town that smelled good on the outside, and looked like some Formica Heaven within. Grits and thick off-white gravy like cement that never set up. Slabs of chewy bacon as thick as show leather, eggs so sunny side up you wanted to put on sunglasses and wheat toast as a nod to good health. Black coffee, served by a waitress half as old as granite wearing a pink hairnet. Enough coffee to keep us twitching to Atlanta. We walked out of there ready to take on the road, but then we saw there was a bookstore next to the diner and... Who was it? Me or Marcel or Elijah, who said let's just take a quick look at this place. Lost an hour there. Bought an old book of Southern Christmas recipes, just in case I ever wanted to cook.

Ok, so we finally got in the van and headed East. But then there's the sign for the Jack Daniel's distillery. Thirty miles out of the way? You could never call a walk through the holy grounds of fine corn liquor, out of the way. This is the legal version of the real stuff that we usually bought out of the trunks of cars in supermarket parking lots, amber colored, smooth as a bowling alley, a comforting fire you can drink morning, noon or night. Made by the thousands of gallons, as consistent from bottle to bottle as the turning of the planet, a promise the next will be just as good as the last. That is, of course, precisely the problem with the real stuff. It is not consistent. That is the problem with us, we are quicksilver, the real stuff with raw bits that no amount of refining will remove always ready to get stuck in the throat of the unsuspecting.

We pulled in behind a chrome plated touring bus and watched the German tourists pile out. One of them blond bigots pissed on a tree at the edge of the parking lot. Love that German sensitivity!

Marcel says, Can we go with them?

Hell, no, we'll go with folks who speak our tongue.

What tongue is that?

Quick wit and common sense. My pa always told me that the Germans got common sense coming out their ass and no wit at all.

Elijah looks cross-eyed at the both us, spits and says, In my family there was no need of common sense, nor wit, just brats 'n' beer and denial.

Then we proceeded to take the fabulous tour with the fabulous tour guide. God bless America, he didn't even come close to speaking our native tongue but was a swell piece of work none the less. Even though I expect he told the same lame jokes twelve times a day, he immediately zeroed in on Marcel as the straight man and fed him primo bullshit from the get go. Marcel knows when to leave well enough alone. He just slides along laughing at every cornball line and the gap-toothed good ol' boy guide is soon running on overdrive; spewing out a sixty mile an hour commentary about guns, taxes, and homemade corn liquor every inch of the way. Elijah periodically goads him with wildly inflammatory Liberal bleeding-heart sentiment setting our guide into ever more spectacular spasms about how the South should have won the only war that ever mattered. He was sure as how Yankees are lower than snakes, and topped off his red-faced spittle-flying lament with a fragrant bouquet of antigovernment, anti-taxation and damn everything but mom, corn liquor and the flag rhetoric.

Elijah peers over the edges of the sunglasses and says, Do tell.

This makes the guy huff and puff double time, until he's blue in the face and gasping for air. By the time we got to the end of the tour and a well-deserved fabled taste of the real thing, the tall glasses of cool lemonade that the law in the dry county allowed, we was laughing solid.

Get back in the van. Head out again and halt for every roadside prophet and cracker-jack quirkiness we might find in the Tennessee hills. We keep driving up and down both sides of the mountain hour after hour and by half past daylight have not yet reached the state line. Every time we begin we stop again. Stop to get gas. Stop to get some souvenir postcards. Stop to get a cold soda. Stop to piss. Stop here, stop there. Stop to eat. But that one, that stop to eat part, that can be forgiven, because that was some mighty fine Bar-b-que. But that's the only exception.

The sun crawls the day from can't see to can't see, and we're driving between nowhere and no how. Finally, we agree that it's got to be Chattanooga. We have to get at least that far. Then we can stop and be done with it.

Elijah looks at the map and says, When we get there, we'll camp. Here's the place, right on the river, Harrison Bay State Recreational Park.

Fine by me, even though my idea of camping is a twenty-six dollar a night bed in a No Tell Motel without television or a phone. Marcel and Elijah, they're still young enough to want to rough it and so we'll rough it. But first, we got to get us some provisions covering the four essential food groups–red, white, brown and sweet. Something to put on the blazing fire. Some meat and potatoes. Some of that fine old Southern bourbon and whiskey that we have been thinking about after that grand distillery tour but could not taste. Maybe a little bit of chocolate or a teeth-sticky caramel. Now's the time for a relaxing bit of pure self-indulgent pleasure after a long day of highway hither and yon.

Through the assumption that the map we have been using is approximate, and the highway we are on will lead us to a campground, if not the campground, we are crawling though industrial Chattanooga. Every turn seems to lead us deeper into detour and disrepair. It occurs to me that these roads may not lead anywhere except to the closing time of a city that locks the door at the end of the workday and turns off the light as it leaves. We need to get our bearings and find the highway, the river, the campground, something, before we are lost and alone on a dead-end street.

A small strip mall appears on my every narrowing horizon. I pull the van into the parking lot of one of the things I love best about the South, a classic grocery/liquor store combo. One-stop shopping. Why can't every state offer this convenience? Of course, the place is a little on the rundown, done in the post-riot architecture that was popularized in the mid-60s and still dominates many of the poorer neighborhoods of this nation's finest cities. The large picture windows at the front of the store have been 3/4 bricked in, leaving a two-foot gap along the upper edge in which the remaining glass is covered with chain-link fence. In front of the double doors welcoming your legal tender are large concrete posts set close enough to prevent a shopping cart from squeezing between them and definitely close enough to stop the rampaging cars that are sure to fly through the double doors, disgorging militants intent on looting the frozen food aisle. At closing time, a steel shutter will be rolled down from an overhead compartment and locked in place. I mean, you wouldn't want anyone to feel like they would actually be welcomed inside to help themselves to the food and booze, would you?

Inside the feeling of bred-in-the-bone poverty and impulse buying grows with crowded aisles filled with mothers dragging crying children past displays of stale candy and young men trying to look cool as they shove bags of potato chips down baggy pants. The florescent lights give the place that odd green cast that makes the already suspect produce look even less appetizing.

We are focused. We are here to beat the clock. We are here to procure meat, potatoes and booze. Thank God the potatoes are fat brown spuds, impervious to the lighting. Elijah grabs a small yellow squash, an onion and the only green pepper sitting on a decomposing pile that retains a shape. The meat counter is another story, with more than one package betraying the color scheme of old bruises. Skip the head cheese, the pork hocks, the liver, the skinny pieces of chicken wearing loose skin. Stick to the basics. Red meat, in a chunk. We grab a couple of steaks that seem to have been packaged in this century and slide into the store's one glory spot, the liquor display. Row after row of celebration, or pain killing forgetfulness, depending on your particular need marched from floor to ceiling. We spy the Grail we seek, pint bottles of the entire gentlemen's club: Jim Beam, Jack Daniel's, Old Grand-Dad, George Dickel, Evan Williams, Hiram and Johnny Walker.

One of each, Marcel cries.

Elijah pulls a handful of bills from his pocket, stares at them as if the act of displaying itself would be enough to multiply their number and says, Why not?

I look at the gaggle of wrinkled Jeffersons that have surfaced from my own pocket. Jesus, there must be a couple hundred bucks there. I can't remember if we've saved money on this tour or spent it like Vegas widows at the dollar slots. A quick calculation of expenses suggests that we had spent a little over $190 from the collective out of pocket change, mostly on gas, tolls and the digression in Nashville. Why not, indeed. We have been blessed with unexpected excess.

While you're at it, Marcel, grab yourself a couple of them six packs of Rolling Rock.

Oh Doctore, you're too good. Rolling Rock, it's such a classic. The perfect thing for spuds and meat over the old campfire.

As we head for the cash register, Marcel asks, Why not invest big time in some lighter fluid? Nothing like long streams of flammable liquid spraying into the night over the business end of a match.

What about charcoal?

Charcoal, smarcoal. He smiles the smile of eternal hope. The campground will always have something we can burn, but you can never have enough starter fluid.

We get back in the van and drive down one of those streets that every city has: the semi- industrial arterial, where you drive and drive and nothing is really familiar but everything looks just the same as every other street like this you have ever driven in every other goddamned town in America. Parking lots and plain Jane warehouses as far as the eye can see. I feel my anxiety level rising. We have no idea how close we are to the campground and I can tell from the Clint Eastwood squints we are wearing that the sun is closer to the horizon than a random guessing of time and distance to a campsite will comfortably allow.

Ok, maybe it's maybe ten or fifteen minutes, at the most, before the sun drops behind the horizon. Suddenly signage appears. Harrison Bay State Recreational Park. The driveway appears. The check-in office appears but there is no one to provide that basic service. We plunge on, driving towards the river and whatever campsite might be available in the last light of a September evening. We'll deal with fees and reservations later. Right now, the only thing that counts is to find a spot and get a fire started.

It sits on a little point with the river curving before us and around us. The spot. Our spot. It had better be our spot because the darkness is also racing to claim its place in the universe. Marcel stops to admire the view as the sun slides behind the distant mountains. Elijah is more practical. He is shoveling stuff out of the back end of the van looking for the tent. I take a quick glance around. No wood. No matter. We'll burn a park bench. Burn the suitcases. Burn the props. We can always get more in Atlanta.

The site offers little in the way of cooking. There is no firepit or built-in grill to speak of, just a concrete slab where something once sat on an iron post. The post was cut off but a good six inches sticks up. Just enough to catch the foot as you transverse the site in the dark. For the sake of our safety, if nothing else, this is the place to build the fire. We have no lights. Once darkness settles, we will be cooking and eating like our protohuman forebearers.

I find the remnants of a charcoal bag in the back of the van and stick in next to the post. Pour half a can of starter fluid on the mound of paper and old lumps. I stop when the starter soaks through the paper and runs like a river. Add a match. Sucker lights up bigger than Godzilla and brighter than Dolly Parton's hair. Let the sun go down, we got a column of flame that would make Moses proud.

Elijah sets up the tent. Marcel appears out of the fulsome darkness dragging an armful of dead tree limbs for the fire. The shortest must be five or six feet. We have nothing to cut them with, so he props them on the concrete picnic bench and kicks, stomps, leaps on them in a largely futile effort to break them into smaller pieces. He finally gives up and just arranges them, criss-crossed on top of the charcoal. With any luck we can feed them into the fire before they are completely aflame.

I stick the three good-sized spuds repeatedly with my Swiss Army knife to let them vent steam, slice the squash, chop the onion and green pepper we've nominated as the vegetable du jour, and wrap them all together in a ball of tin foil. Throw the whole sorry mess into the flaming inferno. Once things settle down, I'll rake the coals around them. Then I take the two coffee cans we use to hold the odd nuts, bolts and gaff tape for the show out of the van, place them at angles to the post and try to balance the iron grill Marcel found in the bushes on top of the cans and the six inches of base that remain. The sucker is rusted, but hey, spray it with a little starter fluid, and the flames will clear that up real nice. The sucker also wobbles like a sailor on the way to a tattoo parlor but I figure if we're careful it will be stable enough to let me slap the steaks on top.

Red meat on the grill. The sizzle of fat dripping into the coals, the little gusts of flame leaping up to remind us of our carnivore roots. While we're waiting for the steak and spuds, we sit around the picnic table smoking cigarettes.

This is the good life, Marcel says to no one in particular. This is more fun than baseball.

Almost anything's more fun than baseball, responds Elijah. You want some real fun? Name your paterfamilias, Spirit. What will your pleasure be?

Bring out the Old Man. Bring out that ol' Kentucky gentleman.

The pint bottles are lined up on the table in alphabetical order. Elijah opens one up and begins passing it around the table. Yes, boys, we're drinking with the four old stalwarts: Jim Beam, Jack Daniel's, George Dickel, and Old Grand-Dad.

Whew, smooth as a baby's bottom. Marcel wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and hands me the bottle.

I wipe the lip of the bottle and take a sip. It's a very fine fire that I swallow. Yes, boys, now we come to the blood and guts of our adventure.

Here Marcel, try this one. Elijah opens the second and takes a slow sip before handing it on.

Around and around the bottles go, stopping at each mouth for a slow sweet sip before resuming their round-about. We lift each to our lips in silent contemplation of whatever it is men think of when they drink and watch the last threads of day disappear behind the mountains.

Hey, Doctore, I think I got a little doobie for an appetizer. Marcel produces a joint of Maui Wowie that his girlfriend gave him for the trip. Even in the dark it looks fat enough to be the ghost of a Cuban cigar. He lights it up and passes it over to me.

I take a hit. A big hit. The smoke curls inside my mouth and plunges into my lungs like an anchor in still water. I can hear the chain of logic rattling down as the botanical blessing hits the bottom. The boat which is my body is floating on the water. Suddenly the relationships of self to world shift. The crickets which had formerly been part of the background are now in stereo. Singing their little love songs. Come closer, come closer, I have what you want. I am acutely aware of their lust, the rhythmic quality of that primordial longing rising and falling in waves, as if with a turn of the ear and a slight adjustment of my line of sight, I could see the very air vibrating, springing from the innumerable source points to form that complex mosaic of desire that I am now entirely focused on. I wish them the best of luck. Let every man jack of them find a mate and have at it.

Oh Buzz, are you OK? I haven't seen anything like that since the '70s.

Marcel and Elijah alternate sips of whiskey and hits of dope, while I go over to the grill to check the steaks. Ready, steady. Time to turn those babies with the only thing on hand, the pliers. Reach in, grab the meat, pry the mass of singed flesh away from the grill, flop it on the other side. The first two go well enough, but as the third tears away from the grill the entire surface comes up with the meat and knocks the coffee can over. The whole dammed grill tilts to the side threatening to deposit the steaks on the ground, tearing the flesh away from the pliers which are still firmly gripping the steak. I'm left dangling a pound of half cooked steak in the air while the rest of the meal is being rearranged by gravity, hot metal and shifting coals.

Fucking holy mother, get me a rock, another stick, anything I can use to prop this damned thing up.

Elijah comes over and grabs hold of the coffee can. He nudges the grill upward with his shoe and slides the can back in place.

Jesus, are you sure you aren't burning those fingers on that coffee can? Bad circulation. Won't feel a thing.

Marcel calls out, Good booze, can't feel a thing.

Elijah says to no one: Be here now?

What is the here? Three men, the product of hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, from a thin slime of amebic potential bathed in the warm sea to a two-legged mammal with a central nervous system, complex bi-hemispherical brain and opposable thumbs. Tool making storytellers, sitting on a hard bench, at a picnic table, at a campsite, on a small spit of land with crickets chirping alongside a river just outside Chattanooga, in the state of Tennessee, in the country we call the United States of America, on the North American continent, in the Western Hemisphere of a planet we call Earth, spinning on our axis, once around every twenty-four hours, being accompanied by a pearlescent moon that takes twenty-eight of our dizzy revolutions to complete its single sashay, face forward, face away and back again, while we do 365 pirouettes to make a single grand promenade as the third planet out from a small yellow sun which is itself revolving along on spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy. Fast as we go, the whole galaxy is expanding, whirling, always sailing outward through the envelope of emptiness which is the universe as one of hundreds of galaxies and nebula, cloud clusters, gasses and light all escaping from the moment it all began with a big bang.

What then is the now? That it is somewhere after eight o'clock in evening in the Eastern time zone on a Wednesday in the month of September. That we have a turbulent and tangled history, communal and individual, which has brought us to this point in a journey that began two days ago, or two decades ago, or somewhere in between. That at this moment the two, the I of my own tattered tale and the we of our traveling the same lonesome highway are intertwined, a tangle of silken pleasures shared and contractual obligation to pay the piper whether we know the dance or not. There have been moments for each of us when we have wanted to turn our back on this work and this journey, to run away. Moments when surely Marcel or Elijah felt like me ready to disappear into our personal lives, leaving the others to their own devices and sorry Fates. Most of all I have felt myself the odd man out, being older in more ways than one and bound by well-worn vices and ugly habits these two have yet to fix.

Be here now. We are but three weary travelers on a pilgrimage, waiting for the evening's repast.

When we can't stand waiting in the dark anymore, we declare the meal ready. Pull the meat off the grill and slap it on the paper plates. Dig the black rimmed spuds out of the coals, stab them with the knife and plop them next to the meat. We can't see a thing. No matter, we tear away the foil with bare fingers and dig in. The spuds are less than successful, some parts still hard, others burned where the foil separated as I stirred the fire with a stick, but the squash, onions and peppers are just right. The meat is tough but flavorful. It is hard to cut in the dark even with the knife. Marcel says, screw it and picks the steak up with his bare hands. Bloody juice runs down his chin. He is laughing as he tears away chunks of meat. We follow suit, gnawing at the flesh and washing the grease and hard bits of spud down with a warm Rolling Rock. We sink into a comfortable silence as we eat and then find our true caveman voices, reduced from the utterance of language to monosyllabic grunts and belches.

Oh, Buzz. I'm a happy man.

Where's my horn? Marcel asks. I want to play a little accompaniment for the Doctor. A hymn to the soul's journey through the ethereal plane.

Yes, that would be perfect, Elijah says. I'll join you in a serenade for Herr Professor.

I've stopped mid-sentence, turned sulky, but that doesn't stop them other guys from getting the tubas out of the van and settling at the edge of the river. The first forlorn notes skip across the water like a flat stone. Soon it is joined by a succession of basso profundo ripples of chugging sound like motorboats crossing choppy water as the interlaced and entwined tubas search for a discernible melody. Soon the sound of the two matching brass bells booms and echoes, like two lovesick bullfrogs, like a Paris traffic jam, as a vibration that seems to open the night and rearrange the very way one hears scales. In the distance we can see the flash of lightning as a storm assembles its charge in response to them other guys siren call. One long blue note after another, with deep resonate blats jumping up from the drone like a homing beacon. Come to us, lightning and thunder. Rise up, blot out the starry night and provide the crack and boom that we long for. Come cleansing rain and black wind, come white hot bolts of electrical flash stopping time in its tracks and ozone thick as fog in the thereafter to baptize our slumbers with your peculiar polarity. Come thunder and storm to wash away yesterday's peevish iniquities and bless our daybreak's departure.

Suddenly a vehicle races up the drive and turns to shine its high beams on our bedraggled company. I am lying on top of the picnic table, the plates and scraps scattered about, smoking with guilty pleasure one of Elijah's cigarettes and watching the slow parade of constellations being chased across the dome of Heaven by the approaching storm. The other guys are standing facing each other in the posture of dueling rock stars, their horns balanced on their hips, swaying in time as they play what I assume to be a tuba version of "Wild Thing."

The car door opens and a voice that announces itself as the Park Ranger tells us to, Cut it out. Absolutely NO music is allowed after 9 P.M.

Marcel and Elijah stop, look at the Ranger. Thanks for recognizing it as music.

I roll off the table and go over to talk with the Man. Though I seem to have some trouble walking and focusing at the same time, he waves off my offer to pay for the campsite now.

I don't have the paper work or change, so stop by the office in the morning. Look, I don't want any trouble with you fellows. Keep it quiet. He turns to me with the look of a man who has lost all interest in continuing a conversation. You wouldn't have any liquor on this campsite, would you? Liquor is not allowed. This is a family campground.

Yes, sir, I say in a stage whisper. No, sir, no liquor here. No music after nine. No trouble. We're just three weary travelers stopping for the night.

The Ranger apparently chose to ignore the can of Rolling Rock I held in my hand, got back into his car and drove off.

I guess the party's over, Marcel says as he came over to lead me by the hand back to the table.

Even if we had wanted to play on, the storm we had conjured up was telling us otherwise. The wind rose, leaves left the trees like commuters deserting the stock exchange after the closing bell, paper plates swirled into the dark, greasy imitations of a full moon and the yellow sparks flew to Heaven like commuters racing for a rush hour train. I was suddenly aware of the size and nearness of the arching canopy of trees as the creak of the branches before the wind took on an ominous quality of weight and movement. Leaves shook and branches rattled as if excited at the approach of the grumbling giant on the other side of the lake. Their liberation from twig and sap was at hand. The tent flaps slapped back and forth, and when I turned to look at the familiar red beast of a tent it seemed as if the entire thing bucked.

Will it be safe? I asked Elijah.

Safer on the inside than on the out, he replies.

Buzz, this is the mighty Monarch, Marcel says. This tent has survived the world turned upside down and not had so much as a ripped seam.

The first drops of rain made a plopping sound as they hit the bare earth. Little puffs of smoke and ash leap up from the half-hearted fire. Raindrops as big as silver dollars march across the water. We can see the black shimmering curtain of the storm is upon us, ready to pummel us with a cold fist. Elijah unzips the mosquito flap and dives in. Marcel follows as sure as a swallow to its nest. I crawl in after them. The three of us are shoe-horned into the tent, the two of them with their heads on the far side and me with mine next to the entry. I pull the zipper down and feel the blows of the storm through the old nylon.

We don't really undress, so much as struggle to find a posture amid a tangle of sleeping bags that would let us settle into some proximity of comfort. The walls were beating like a frightened heart as the storm surged around us. I turned this way, Elijah that, and Marcel was bumped on each side toward the far end of the tent.

A mighty crack of lightning close by. We could feel the electrical pulse shimmer the air.

Marcel says, did I ever tell you fellows that I've been struck by lightning. Twice.

I look out the tent and see that what few lights had marked the parking bays and sundry campsites were gone. Outside was utter darkness, with the rain dancing a mighty polka on the wanting earth and kicking the last of the fire with a steamy hiss. There was a flash and everything stood etched in black and white. Here a tree limb separating from the trunk, there the shadow of a tree clutching the aluminum of a camper, here the motion of tent, smoke, and our fear stopped mid-gulp. The smell of rain, the smell of wood smoke, the smell of spilled beer and small squeaky farts were all trapped in the tent. We squirmed in place, always looking this way and that for our comfort and fell into a fitful state of half consciousness that passed for sleep on the rocky furrows that underpinned the Monarch on the increasingly soggy bit of our weary world.

Marcel whistled in his sleep.

I tell myself that I'm too old for this shit. Too old for hard ground. My idea of camping is a No Tell Motel where you put a quarter in the TV to get fifteen minutes of bad color. My bones protested the indignity of stones, sticking out at odd angles and forbidding me even a moment's comfort. Where was that bed with the squeaky springs and well-worn hollow I had to climb to get out of now? No matter how I turned, nothing fit.

Sometime after the wind and lighting sent a nearby tree to that Hell which is kindling, I crawled out of the tent and made a dash to the truck. Climbed in, put the front seat back as far as it would go. Started up the engine and turned the heater on high. The fan fogged the windows making the cold torrents of rain a dreamy visual. Oh, I know this movie, it's a good one. Maybe even a happy ending.

In this moment, as with every other, I am here, now. It is enough. What value is there in regret is my refrain. Sing it, again. The past cannot be undone, only understood. All the “could have been” of the world are a mouse nibbling yesterday's cheese. How can I look at these riches and not be satisfied with my lot: the rain a steady drumming on the tin roof, the engine running steady, with Marcel and Elijah snoring in the red tent, is my world. Comfortable or not, we are pledged as sure as any vow to the work of common hands. If one falls, all fall, if one rises, all rise. This van is my chapel, a mobile sanctuary, the holy mother church of four wheels in the congregation of the mendicant traveler. Screw St. Christopher, that well-deserved defrocked fraud. We'll need some real help in the morning. Something as serious as the pain we will surely feel. Pray for me, St. Vitus, the patron saint of traveling performers.

Finally, the heat enters my fingers. I shut off the engine, wrap my long coat around my legs and embrace the blessing that is sleep.

Black Coffee

Elijah likes to have black coffee before we perform. He likes those little-hole-in-the-wall expresso joints where all you get is coffee and attitude. Goes in and tells the clerk with a stud in his nose that we need a couple of double expressos to go. Doesn't want them in a foam cup if he can get them in the cardboard one. Doesn't like the taste of foam-tainted coffee. Wants the paper soaking up excess coffee oils while he spends at least ten minutes standing on the street just looking at the traffic. Yes, he wants to stand with an oil-slick expresso in one hand and a cigarette in the other before he goes into the club, into the theater, into the dressing room, into the whatever cockroach limbo we are consigned to before we hit the stage; looking at life with bitter water fueled heat in hand, slowly sipping it until the street and heat are totally internalized.

Me, I don't need aviation grade Java to make my tick-tock run on time. Just so long as I can't see the bottom of the cup when it's full. I usually don't want a full cup, certainly not two cups, of good strong black coffee in the morning. I want a sip, a slash, a jot, a warm-up, a whatever you call it when them always ready steady with the pot come round and make that empty inch go away, but to get there I got to order a cup to begin with. After that, I can take it or leave it. After that as far as my liquid intake of choice, it's single malt scotch with a little ice water on the side all the do long day.

But this morning, I needed a lot more of something. The promise of misery yet to come, the dull ache of last night's cold had settled in my old bones. There was plenty of nothing gray light at 6 A.M. and I'm not quite asleep in the front seat of the truck. No, it was more like inhabiting a cramped elevator traveling from life to unconsciousness that got stuck between floors. That was more like it. Like I was neither here nor there and not even dreaming about the betwixt and between when I opened one eye. Pain, pain from my left hemisphere down to my toes. Closed it again. Yes, I was stuck between never again and too familiar with no phone to call for help. Too late, that elevator was on its way up, creaking and screeching all the way. Whatever residual and welcome sleep might have been coaxed out of stuck between floors had fled and the punishment of pleasure that my Sunday School teachers had always warned me about done gone and taken its place. Ooch, Ooch, Theatre de Sade.

Might as well open both them eyes and look at the sorry remains of our fine celebration. The tent leaned at an odd angle like it tried to roll over in the middle of the night but forgot to finish the job. Either it had crawled into a puddle or had a pretty big one sneak up on it. Brown brackish water stood three inches deep on one end. I could see Elijah's feet, the red socks muddy, sticking out of the high end of the tent. Marcel's tuba was lying on the ground, bell up, decorated with fallen leaves. Empty bottles, food scraps, a shoe that might have been one of ours littered the ground. Not mine, mine were still on my feet. We musta had a good time, 'cause from the dead raccoon look of the place there was no thought about tomorrow when we crossed that dark road last night. But this was tomorrow and it was one rainy cold son of a bitch.

I got out of the truck, went over to the nearest tree, pissed. Greenish stream steaming out. Man, it felt good, like I hadn't done that in days. My kidneys hurt, my ass hurt. Come to take inventory and I see that everything hurt. Shook myself awake. Could've sworn that I heard the bones rattle in my skin. Doubled back to look inside the tent. Elijah was folded like a jack knife, legs straight, waist tucked, body pointed back towards his feet, arms clutching his chest. He was wearing the same things he wore yesterday except now they were covered with mud. He had a stocking cap pulled over his face. I didn't remember mud as part of last night's festivities, so it must have arrived after I pulled the plug on my sojourn in the tent. Marcel was sleeping face down in the puddle, naked except for a pair of striped boxer shorts.

Gentlemen, get up!

What? Elijah bolts up like a flag on an ice fishing rig released by the tug of the line with a twenty-pound walleye on the business end. What's that you said?

Get up. It's too damn cold here. Jesus, will you see if Marcel's dead? Face down in the water, that would be just what we need for some awkward questions from the investigating officer that must be answered and the unavoidable delay of autopsies. Having to explain to a doubtful inquest exactly how the boy wound up drowned inside the tent. It won't do. Having to explain the dead tubas, the dead bottles, the dead ashes of the fire scattered around the tent door. Way too much to explain.

The sudden thought of having to replace Marcel was too much to bear. Elijah, the least you can do is get him turned over.

Elijah grabbed Marcel's foot and twisted it around. The rest of the body followed. Marcel opened one eye and uttered a sound that was somewhere between bat fart and bullfrog greeting.

I was having the worst dream. I thought I was Charlie the Tuna.

Look at you, Elijah says pointing at me. You're dressed.

Of course, I'm dressed, I'm in the same clothes I wore yesterday. Dressed in the same cold, wet shit I woke up in and intending to change as quickly as I can into something that is dry and warm. Do we have anything dry and warm? That would be nice, wouldn't it? Gentlemen, are you ready to get on with it? I'm ready. More than ready to get out of here. More than ready to get my forgot where I put it and never went back to look ass to Atlanta and make some money before we forget what the Hell we're going there for.

I turned the tent flap back to reveal the gray-felt day. Ready for some strong hot coffee boys? Yes, some double-strength black hot coffee I think will be a very good idea once you start moving. Wait, wait, I got a better idea. A big cup of steaming bitter black water and maybe a short order of cakes covered with sweet syrup and a side order of bacon that's still a little limp, you know, strips that bend slightly when you pick them up and hash browns that crunch.

They groaned.

No, I'm telling you this is the very thing we need. It's the only thing that will give meaning to our lives this morning of all mornings–to have a decent cup of coffee and something slightly greasy to eat.

After all, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, croaked Marcel now sounding like a frog with a falsetto. Oh, Jesus, Buzz, is that me?

It took a while to find some clean clothes and get them on. The assumption that the old stuff was soggy and the new stuff was dry proved not to be a good one when you've left the bags on the ground.

Marcel went over to look at the horns and check for storm damage. His skinny frame was a pathetic sight as he wrestled the big tuba over and poured out a good quart of black water. He put it to his lips and gave a blast. A cloud of spray accompanied a sound that more closely resembled a phlegmy sneeze than a musical note. He shook his head. Son of a bitch needs a valve job but I think it'll be all right.

I just want to puke, Elijah said. He pulled the tent into a clumsy ball and shoved it in a garbage bag. He dragged the garbage bag to the van and heaved it in. Why do you look happy, Doc? You can't be happy on a day like this, can you?

I threw whatever was useful into the truck. No, I've got too much pain to declare this moment a happy one. On the other hand, we didn't die. You know what they used to say in the carny camp, if you wake up, half the battle's won.

Marcel wandered in ever widening circles, looking for his shoes. Who says that? Carny folks? I don't believe it for a minute. People who don't drink, that's who. Old people who look for their names in the obits, that's who. People with a penchant for sugar-coated smiles and actually mean have a nice day when they say it, that's who.

Looking over the forlorn campsite, I found myself in complete agreement. I did wake up but the battle was far from won. The pain in my joints was so bad, I began singing another one of the tunes we have used so well in so many shows. A tune that seemed especially well-suited for our present situation.

And am I born to die, to lay this body down,
and must my trembling spirit fly into a world unknown?
A world of deeper shades, without a human care
the dreary region of the dead where all things are for naught A world of deeper shades, without a human care
the dreary region of the dead where all things are forgot.

Marcel and Elijah joined in.

De ja Vu

Do we get what we deserve? Did I? Did you?

Variation on a theme.

It was late June. There were crickets and police sirens to be heard along Du Pree Avenue. We were having a little sweaty fun in her big brass bed. The big brass bed with the ornate head headboard that filled the little green room with the striped wallpaper. The green striped wallpaper room at the end of the second floor of her rooming house. The rooming house with the landlady who liked to drink and the boyfriend who liked to hit. That one. That bed, that room, that house, that landlady, that boyfriend, all of which we were trying to ignore in favor of the pleasures of the flesh.

Yes, I can conjure that night with a wave of the hand. Place myself back in that room and listen to the weary fan trying to keep up while Belle and I did the nasty. That particular night the windows were open so when I heard the rough sound of a car with one bad cylinder roar out of the alley, I could measure the distance between acceleration and crash. It took a long time. All the while I was lying in bed with time slowing down, settling into the slow crawl of the second hand that can't quite reach the next number. It was but a few seconds that expanded like the universe after the Big Bang, a simultaneous experience of giddy thrill and fear, the sure sign of an accident in progress. I knew it was Belle’s other boyfriend.

Her Oldsmobile didn't suffer much damage when his Toyota hit it–just sort of jumped the curb with a thummpp loud enough to make me sit up in bed wondering how drunk that son of a bitch was. But the can of gas he poured through the ‘88s window was hard on the seats, especially when he added the match. I could smell the gas. I could hear the splash as the high-grade octane hit the seats. I could hear the scratch of the match. Or thought I did. Didn't take but a few seconds for the Oldsmobile to look like a marshmallow that lost the fight with the campfire; the white paint turning puffy and black, the flames swirling end to end.

I could see by the scared rabbit look in her eyes that she knew who it was. I knew too. No words were spoken or needed to be. It was none other than goddamned him. No name was said, just a glance from one to the other and the clenching of teeth as she saw the flames rising in the night.

We jumped out of bed, naked. I headed for the pearl handled, chrome plated .38 special kept in the top drawer of the dresser for the comfort of having one.

Tell the whole story, Fool, tell the sordid details even if it's only to your ears. It was not for comfort that the gun came into her possession. It was out of fear that he was crazy and here he was proving the point. Five minutes ago, Belle and I were drifting on a double bed towards all the happy tomorrows we thought we deserved and now the psycho-boyfriend was burning the car as a reminder of today.

I ran out of the room, naked and mad. The gun in my hand was as comfortable as the ball between his fingers when the pitcher is ready to throw the third strike high and inside. Every one of them soft point bullets was at attention, Ready to go. Just pull the trigger. Your command is our duty. Surprised the hell out of me when I tripped. Suddenly the ceiling is moving and I landed with a crunch that slapped my naked butt like an angry mother. Slid naked down the steps and skinned my butt on the worn carpet sure enough. Hurt like a son of a bitch. As I'm sliding down, the gun flies up, but doesn't leave my hand. I just about squeezed off a shot when I hit the bottom step and felt the rug smash my missing backside. Belle, she come running after me asking me what I was going to do. I could hear her pleading for me to be sensible as I stumbled to my feet at the bottom of the stairs and opened the front door.

It's just a goddamned car, she said. It's insured, for God's sake.

A badly hung screen door our only modesty, we stood naked in the doorway. She grabbed hold and tried to pull me back. Her arms were tight around my waist, those sweet nipples I loved to suck, hard against my back as we watched that car burn. She was whispering my name, asking me to just come back upstairs.

It was him all right. The other guy who followed us like some bad dog sniffing shit on every date. He was standing in the middle of Du Pree, dancing before the flames like the fallen away Baptist I suspected he was.

That's when I decided to shoot him for standing there with a Bible in one hand and a bottle in the other. Had to. He was just too fucking much, spoiling my happiness with this kind of half-assed stunt. I reached around and pushed her back with one hand.

Stay inside.

Then I kicked the screen door open and brought the gun up to firing position. I could see his head square in the sight. God, I wanted to squeeze off the first round right there and then. Had maybe a half second of rational thought and lifted it another quarter inch before I pulled the trigger. A flash and roar. I heard Belle make a squeaking sound. Fired off a second round. I swear I put it a good two feet over his head but he fell like a sack of bricks. Stopped mid-leap, turned to give me a puzzled look, not quite comprehending my standing naked in the doorway with the gun in hand, and fell down. Just like that.

She didn't care that she was naked. She ran past me into the street calling out his name, rushing out to where his crumpled form lay to see if the son of a bitch was bleeding. I was caught up in a stray thought watching her beautiful legs and firm ass running to him. I really should change my ways. Made me want to get religion, looking at her sitting there like a Madonna with Child with him cradled in her arms, naked in the street. His head was resting between her small firm breasts where I longed for mine to be. I swear the son of a bitch opened his eyes and winked at me.

The gun felt awfully heavy. I thought that I probably ought to put it away. Stepping back into the rooming house, I closed and locked the door. Turned around to go up the stairs to her bed. Teddy, the landlady’s beau was standing there watching the whole scene and did the only decent thing I ever knew him to do. Teddy took the gun out of my hand and walked out the back door. Good-bye gun. Good-bye Teddy.

The landlady took a blanket and went outside to see what she could do. Police sirens or fire sirens were filling the street. All up and down the block people were out of their houses watching the car burn or looking at the naked woman with the dead guy in her arms. The landlady wrapped the blanket around Belle and stood in the yard with a beer in hand waiting for help to arrive. As the fire truck pulled up, the landlady came back to the house.

Get yourself dressed she says to me, there'll be questions to answer.

The fire guys began spraying down the Olds. The cops arrived and rushed over to see if Belle's Ok, if the lifeless son of a bitch is Ok. Up in the room I can hear them shouting questions like it was a race to see who can ask the most without taking a breath. Ambulance sirens got added to the mix and I couldn't hear the cops anymore. The air is filled with flashing red lights, the squawk of radio chatter and the hiss of water soaking down the Olds. The whole place smelled like burning rubber and plastic. Someone was ringing the doorbell.

Out the window I could see them putting him on a stretcher and her getting into the ambulance. I thought to myself, she's really going with the jealous cocksucker to the hospital.

I found out later that he wasn't dead, wasn't even shot. He'd just passed out from drinking too much and after the mandatory 70-hour stint in detox he'd be released. The best I could hope for was that he'd get charged with toasting the car. With Belle gone, I was left in the green wallpapered rooming house with the Mutt and Jeff cops asking me questions.

The neighbors heard shots. What about those shots? Did you hear shots?

I don't know. Heard something. Maybe it was a backfire. Maybe firecrackers. Hey, my mind was somewhere else. Certainly didn't sound like a .38 Smith and Wesson.

The cops ignored that one and proceeded with the standard drill. Did you see anything?

My girlfriend's car burning, a couple of used condoms here beside the bed. I really don’t know anything. I don’t live here; I’m just visiting your fine city.

Do you know the guy?

The guy who fell down? I met him once or twice. My girlfriend knows him. He's sweet on her. I try to keep my nose out of her business.

In the end I didn't get charged with anything. Her boyfriend did. When I finally heard about it, I was in Natchez and he was serving thirty days in an alcohol treatment program with the strong suggestion of the court that he could use some anger management counseling before he did serious damage to himself or someone else. I had avoided the trial. I had avoided seeing him after that night. I wanted to avoid thinking about Belle but the hunger for her laughter was a powerful motivator to speak to her once more.

I called her up. She said that she wanted to get back together. Yes, if I would just come back to Memphis, we could all make a fresh start.

After Atlanta, I said. I’d be free to do that.

Not now? Belle asked.

No, not now I said and hung up the phone. Then the thought crept in, a fresh start? With me or with him? I didn't want to know the answer to that question. What I wanted was to hear a couple of comforting lies.

Them Other Guys

We've been on the road for such a long time that the very act of travel should be exhausting yet it is clear to me that the tiredness we carry inside springs not from the accumulation of every detour between Chicago and Atlanta or from last night's indulgences.

Yes, a few comforting lies would be appropriate about now.

I think to myself, as I have thought a thousand times before, that I am too old for this life. I want to be done with incessant travel and change. To be done with chasing Kerouac's ghost across the American landscape, driving the dark by dashboard lights. Done with the constantly searching for road signs, measuring the where we are, of being in the tumbling world against the tattered maps of the world as someone else defines it. Speed limit 65 MPH. One way. No left turn. Exit now. I've said all this before, haven't I? With a nod, nod, and another, I shake myself awake and look at my reflection in the dark glass. How tired am I?

Will I leave after this one? Doctor Buzz's last performance. What a concept. The once mighty showman, the maestro of the moment, presents his swan song in Atlanta. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, get your cameras ready. For his final act of improbable daring-do the good Doctor, the old and tired Doctor, will spontaneously combust before your very eyes. Will I tell them other guys that I'm done or just walk away like I have threatened to so many times before? And if I told them, when the inevitable question of "why" jingles like a coin in a nervous man's pocket, what will I say? Will I quote Job, when he says,

If I speak, my pain is not eased
and if I forebear, how much of it leaves me?

If I quit now, would it make any difference? Marcel and Elijah, are like psychic Siamese twins, a virtual Chang and Eng, joined at the cerebellum. Light and dark. They could and would go on feeding off each other's energies for a long time. Non sequiturs and confusion. Time spent with them is waiting for Godot time. Call them fellows Vladimir and Estrogen. Pacing a jumbled emotional landscape, they are waiting, waiting and always talking about what was before and what is next. One is all resignation and the other hope. What does that make me? Am I Pozzo? Am I Lucky? No, more likely to be Pozzo than Lucky. Am I Godot? Now there's a discomforting thought.

Am I their father, their teacher, their nanny, their servant? They don't need me, except for the convenience of having the Doctor around to negotiate every dime of the contract, dot the i's, cross the t's, schmooze the press, deal with all the proper authorities, organize the schedules, collect the cash or certified check before we set foot on stage, pay the bills and scrape the shit off the fan. But I'd be the first to admit it, any fool can do that, even those guys could learn the tricks of the trade in a day if they had too. It's just nice not to have to.

I found them. True or false? Both, true and false. They found each other and they found me.

I made them. True or false? False. I made nothing but a little space, a scheme, a way to suck in a few presidents. Those other guys started out as shills, sidemen, accomplices. Like Hell they did, they were always first-rate talent. They are the ones with the bright future. I was already yesterday's news before we met and have hung on because they like to have me around.

They made me. True or false? False. At least I hope so. If anything, I made myself. A genuine do-it-yourself Frankenstein. Held the mirror with one hand while I took the scalpel to cut a couple of nasty growths that should have been removed long ago. Oops, was that the heart? Put it back in for God's sake.

Who made me? God, as suggested in the grade school catechism books, or circumstance? Nature or nurture? Bring out the gene splicers, we need to do a little more work on this one. Ego or will? Indecision or accident? Guilt or desire? What does it matter, who is responsible for this state of affairs; I'm here now. Still behind the wheel with the tank half full or half empty and the sound track turned up loud. Still Lou Reed. Still New York.
We who have so much to
you who have so little
to you who don't have anything at all...

Still the jangling guitars and the big drumbeat.
Strawman, going straight to the devil.
Strawman, going straight to hell.

Outside the last vestiges of some hurricane is still pissing down on the highway. The windshield wipers squeak their little protest at being asked to work, trudge forward, change direction and go back the way they came.
If you're like me I'm sure a minor miracle will do.

A flaming sword or maybe a gold ark floating on the Hudson...

If only my life were that simple.

Ask again. What did these boys do for me? Nothing. Something. Plenty. My genius has always been to know when to get out of the way. No, they did not make me, I'm telling this story and what a perverse tale of longing and leaving it is. Yes, every word of it spoken and not one regretted. Well, maybe a few regretted. But to what end? Big Daddy was right, there is no value in regret. Get on with it. We are what we pretend to be. That's the just the way it is.

Those boys owe me. If I gave us anything it was a shape and form. Permission. The golden knock of Opportunity. The get-go that let them pop and spark like a 4th of July fireworks display at the end of the demolition derby. This testimony, this pathetic expression of my lexicon of desire, is all that stands between them and forgetfulness. If I do not tell the tale, who will? No story, no history. Like Big Daddy used to say, No story, no glory.

Left to their own devices they would probably file away these years in some obscure memory bank, hoping to accumulate modest interest so when they took it out at a later date saying, Oh, is this what I think it is? There would be at best a minimum return on their investment. But I'm testifying here. Amen. Say it, Spirits, say it loud and proud. Amen! I'm not interested in a little return on my investment. This is the whole shooting match. This is my entire bankroll. Everything I have of value in the world is in this work and my tainted love for them other fellows. Sing out, sisters, let heaven hear your sweet voices raise a joyous cry. Roll the dice, I'm going for broke. Rattle the bones, I have bet it all. If they don't like it, well they can sing their own damn songs, on their own dime in their own time. I'm behind the wheel now. When I drive, it's my trip.

What would they do without me? What would I do without them? This chemistry was supposed to be for a moment, for the space of a circus tour and we've gone on a damn sight beyond that. Closing in on two decades. The weeks run together, the months turn to years, the years piled up as easy as leaves on October lawns. Every time we thought we were done, there was another opportunity, another chance to play. Intended or not, we're still at it.

Always and forever, the ever changing never changing muddy waters. We are the river of dreams, the river of memory, the river of hope flowing steadily to the sea. Will we hit it big this time? Will we walk off stage this time and never work together again? Don't focus on that now. Just make the show, perform the show. Build the layers of language and music, the bad jokes one by one. Drum, cymbal, tuba, baritone horn, trumpet, glass bottle xylophone, hurdy-gurdy whatever. Make the notes some tripping out, the rhythms pounding one on top of another like commuters rushing for the last train. Get those happy feet flying and hold the tap board to your head. Yes, yes, do you hear the sound of risk and adventure? Make the sweat come pouring down like summer rain. That's where our happiness is. Make the customer glad they paid their money, glad they took their chances. Yes, that's what it comes down to.

Once upon a time, three men met in a dead-end alley off a one-way street, recognized each other's grease stained shirts, bow ties and ill-fitting Salvation Army suits. We pledged our lives and fortunes; made a pact on it, shook hands and spit to seal the deal. Hey, Mephistopheles, got room for our names on that contract? Three men playing to the best of their abilities. Heard the music of the sirens. Bump and grind of the waves breaking over black rock. Heard the music of the cherubs. The furious funk of gossamer wings beating out double time riffs. Heard the laughter of Puck after the donkey's head was in place and thought the joke was very good. Three men hit the highway in search of now and the next one. Hey, got some work for us? Hey, I hear they need some trumpets up in Jericho. Unpacked our bags and massaged our aching feet, then packed our bags again. Good stuff, every bit. This show, the last show, the next show.

Stay, Doctor, just once, stay with it all the way to the Promised Land. You're not Moses, so don't go down before you taste the milk and honey. Stay to the absolute fat lady singing finish. Listen for that last high-pure note before you take your bow.

Buzz, are you OK? Elijah asks as he leans forward to look into my eyes. Why?

Well, it looks like you're crying.

Crying? Me? I instinctively wipe my hand across my face and feel the primordial stream which marks joy or sorrow for our kind. Must be something in my eye, I say, as I turn up the tape deck for another blast of Lou.
The things he hadn't touched or kissed, his senses slowly stripped away,
Not like Buddha, not like Vishnu, life wouldn't rise through him again,
I find it easy to believe that he might question his beliefs...

The soundtrack that is this journey vibrates the dash and drowns out whatever it was that Elijah said next.

He leans forward again, turning the volume down to a tolerable level. How close are we?

Marcel chimes in, Are we there, yet? Are we arrived?

No, Spirits, not yet, I say to them, and to myself, most of all. We are not arrived. We are not finished. We still have a long way to go together before this journey is complete.

I turn my attention back to the watery world of old mountains and low black clouds. As we reach the crest of a hill the clouds part and a single shaft of sunlight illuminates the road before us. For one still moment we are not traveling, but suspended, a little boat on a river of burnished brass. The clouds come together and the next wave of rain and darkness sweeps across the windshield obliterating the Georgia hills and the tail lights of the eighteen wheelers headed for the next cup of coffee. Fuck the obligation of habit and memory.

Fuck the rain. Atlanta can't be that far away.

About the Author

Loren Niemi

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Loren Niemi began as a “child fibber” but soon realized he was less interested in telling lies than in improving the truth...” He is an innovative storyteller, poet and the author of “What Haunts Us” the 2020 winner of the Midwest Book Award for “Sci-Fi / Horror / Fantasy / Paranormal” fiction as well as two poetry chapbooks, “Coyote Flies Coach” and “Vote Coyote!”. More information at lorenNiemistories.com.